Lucas di Grassi of Brazil arrives at the podium after finishing second in the Formula E championship in Hong Kong on October 9, 2016. AFP, Anthony Wallace
Lucas di Grassi of Brazil arrives at the podium after finishing second in the Formula E championship in Hong Kong on October 9, 2016. AFP, Anthony Wallace

Brazilian racing driver Lucas Di Grassi was skeptical when he first heard about Formula E. Having competed in Formula One and GP2 races, he didn’t think racing electric cars would be all that exciting.

But after learning about the socially-oriented mission behind Formula E — to help develop emission free electric car technology and give it sex appeal — he reconsidered.

“It’s environmentally friendly, so the technology we are pushing is the technology of the future, that will be on the streets, and it doesn’t emit any CO2,” he said while in Hong Kong to take part in the inaugural race of Formula E’s third season.

“We want to show to people that electric cars are fast, they’re sexy, they’re a sport, and by doing so people have more confidence to buy an electric car,” he continued. “The key message is we are promoting a better vision product for society, and there is a culture barrier for people changing to electric cars.”

Di Grassi, who finished in second place on Sunday, after winning the 2014 Beijing ePrix, wanted to be seen as part of something constructive. It’s what psychologist Edward Thorndike called the “Halo Effect”, which describes how people seen in a good light for one thing are assumed to be good at other things, good all around.

When it comes to Formula E, Di Grassi is not the only one hoping to bask in the company’s socially responsible eco-friendly “green halo.”  A slew of sponsors, drivers, and companies are getting on board, in part, because they hope it will brighten their brand.

Take Formula E’s global sponsor G.H. Mumm Champagne. After 15 years sponsoring Formula One, they changed their allegiance to Formula E, in part because of its green mission.

“Today you can’t do anything corporate without social responsibility,” said Cesar Giron, the Chairman and CEO of Martell Mumm Perrier-Jouët (MMPJ). Whether the brand, the vineyards, or even the new bottle made from 100% recycled glass, sustainability is a must, he added.

“A few years ago electric cars weren’t so fashionable. Now all the carmakers are talking about electric, electric, electric,” Giron said. “It’s an environment, it’s an ecosystem that we’re trying to be part of.”

Indeed, Formula E already features Jaguar, Citroën and Renault, among others, and both BMW and Mercedes have announced plans to participate in future races. Not to be outdone, Tesla is developing its own race to compete with Formula E.

“In a short period of time it has become a very cool branch of the sport,” said Dario Franchitti, a multiyear IndyCar champion. “Every car manufacturer has a to have an electric side to their fleet now, and the fastest way to develop that is through racing.”

Italian electricity company Enel, too, says that social responsibility is important, but points to long-term challenges in the energy market as its motivation for becoming a sponsor.

“The scale and potential of electric mobility is far greater than social responsibility. It is a technological inevitability and will be absolutely central to our lives,” said Ryan O’Keeffe, Enel’s Head of Communications.

Even governments are getting on board.

“They all understand we need clean air,” said Lawrence Yu of the Hong Kong Auto Association. “In China they need the EV car more than anyone else, because the pollution, especially in big cities in China, is horrible.”

The recognition both that going green is important strategically and a useful indicator that a company is forward thinking and socially aware is even creeping its way back into traditional racing.

Under pressure from sponsors such as Unilever, Formula One has been making efforts to cut back its emissions, slashing the CO2 levels produced in the race from 150 kg to 100 kg in 2014 alone.

That’s a start, but in truth, racing only accounts for about 0.3% of the overall emissions in the sport; the rest comes from development, electricity usage, manufacturing, and lots of air travel.

But despite the fact that Formula E is far from carbon neutral or sustainable, CEO Alejandro Agag argues that it’s message and push for technology development ultimately make it a force for greening the planet.

“Formula E wants to play a key role in advancing the technology surrounding electric car ownership, not just the cars themselves,” he said. They are working to ensure that the electricity for the car comes from sustainable sources as well.

In the meantime, the sponsors keep lining up.

Whoever said it wasn’t easy being green?